I am 24 and I have been to the opera eight times. I wanted to write a short piece to reflect on this art form and also to spread the word about the ‘£5 tickets for under 30s’ scheme that the Welsh National Opera runs – it is this which has enabled me to clock up such a tally of performances.
I first went to the opera when I was 18. I was in Prague alone; I had flown in to meet up with a group that I would travel down to Croatia with. When I told my grandfather that I would have the evening alone in Prague before meeting my group, he suggested that I go to the Prague State Opera,
“The tickets are cheap. You really should go.” He told me. Perhaps it was a clever way to keep his youngest granddaughter away from the city’s bars and clubs (which I wouldn’t have gone to anyway!), but shortly after our conversation, I looked up the opera house online, found that Carmen would be performed on the night that I was there. I bought a ticket to sit in a box for around £18 and within minutes I had purchased and printed an e-ticket– the internet is a magical thing.
I arrived in Prague and it was blisteringly hot. I dropped my luggage off at the hostel and spent the afternoon wandering around Wenceslas Square before heading back to the hostel to put on my dress – the smartest outfit I could muster for the opera was a purple, cotton summer dress. I wore my sandals to walk from the hostel and self-consciously changed into silver pumps around the corner from the opera house. I stuck out like a sore thumb; the lone English girl in a summer dress amongst the swathes of handsome men in dinner jackets (some even wore capes and hats) and beautiful women in flowing dresses. I found my seat in the box; it was a low chair with a seat that was rounded like a mushroom and a back that sloped at an awkward angle. I would, in fact, be rather uncomfortable for the duration of the performance, but I knew that it was a ‘cheap seat’ and I was just glad to be there. The building itself was magnificent and opulent with an enormous stage, vast ceiling, and more gilding than I had ever seen in my life.
When the performance began, I was enraptured. Carmen was such a wonderful piece to see as an introduction to opera because so much of the music was familiar. The overture was so rousing, and when the performers took to the stage, I was utterly lost to the real world; my world, for the next two hours, became 19th century Spain. I marvelled at the performers themselves- how could anyone produce such a range of notes, such breadth of tone and such swelling volume and complex emotions by singing?
My favourite piece was ‘Avec la garde montante’– which was sung by a chorus of little boys playing at mimicking soldiers; they marched on in a line, with high knees and little, wooden swords in their hands as they sang the song. The tune was really memorable and it stayed with me- whenever I hear it now I am always transported back to be the 18-year-old me who sat in her purple summer dress in the Prague State Opera House.
The following year, I started university and discovered that the local theatre, the Mayflower Theatre in the heart of Southampton, hosted the Welsh National Opera twice a year, and the WNO offered £5 tickets to under 30s for all their performances (although from the autumn season I think that these will be increasing to £10 – which is still a bargain!). This threw open the doors to a palace of opportunity. As a student, there was no way that I could have afforded the full price of a ticket to the opera, but at £5 it was cheaper than a trip to the cinema and I decided to try and see as many operas as possible before I reached the age of 30.
The first WNO performance that I went to was Madame Butterfly, which I recently saw for the second time. If you’re new to opera, this is another fantastic performance to start with. It tells the story of an American who marries a Japanese girl called Butterfly whilst he is based in Nagasaki; Butterfly converts to Christianity for her new husband and is subsequently cut off by her family. She adores her husband, but he leaves her to go back to America; the opera focuses on her unfailing love for him, her innocence and her naivety; and, of course, there is a tragic firework finish. Madam Butterfly is also host to the astonishingly moving and beautiful aria ‘Un bel di’ – ‘One fine day’, in which Butterfly pines for her absent husband, and also the haunting and ethereal ‘Humming chorus’ as she awaits his return.
I’ve also seen a number of other performances by the WNO, all thanks to the bargain tickets. Other performances that I’ve seen include William Tell, Tosca, La Boheme, Moses in Egypt, and Sweeny Todd. There is much discussion about whether Sweeny Todd is a musical or a light opera, but regardless of this, it was a smashing performance. The only opera that I didn’t like was Moses in Egypt, and my husband and I left at the first interval (yes, the performance was long enough to merit two intervals!). With that exception, I have really enjoyed going to the opera and experiencing something new. The WNO are a force to be reckoned with and each opera has offered, in addition to world class music, incredibly innovative set designs and costumes that breathe new life into the opera.
If you are under the age of 30 I really encourage you to take advantage of the £10 tickets and visit the opera, not only because it’s magnificent and will be like nothing you have ever seen or heard before, but also because the opera needs you. For each of the performances that I have attended, the average age of the audience is probably about 67 years old. If today’s young adults are not engaging with the opera, then who will make up the audience in 30 years’ time? It’s too rich an art form to lose.